Source: Medium | December 26, 2018
Author: Martin Giles
Jian-Wei Pan, China’s “father of quantum,” is masterminding its drive for global leadership in technologies that could change entire industries
On September 29, 2017, a Chinese satellite known as Micius made possible an unhackable videoconference between Vienna and Beijing, two cities half a world apart. As it whisked across the night sky at 18,000 miles (29,000 kilometers) per hour, the satellite beamed down a small data packet to a ground station in Xinglong, a couple of hours’ drive to the northeast of Beijing. Less than an hour later, the satellite passed over Austria and dispatched another data packet to a station near the city of Graz.
The packets were encryption keys for securing data transmissions. What made this event so special was that the keys distributed by the satellite were encoded in photons in a delicate quantum state. Any attempt to intercept them would have collapsed that state, destroying the information and signaling the presence of a hacker. This means they were far more secure than keys sent as classical bits — a stream of electrical or optical pulses representing 1s and 0s that can be read and copied.
The video encryption was conventional, not quantum, but because the quantum keys were required to decrypt it, its security was guaranteed. This made it the world’s very first quantum-encrypted intercontinental video link.
The man behind this achievement is Jian-Wei Pan. A professor at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), sometimes known as “China’s Caltech”, 48-year-old Pan has produced a series of breakthroughs that have propelled him to scientific stardom in the country. His work has won plaudits from President Xi Jinping, and he’s often referred to in local media as “the father of quantum.”
Quantum communications and computing are still nascent, but they are among the technological “megaprojects” on which China’s government wants breakthroughs by 2030. It sees an opportunity to lead the dawning quantum era in much the same way that the US dominated the advent of computing and the information revolution that it sparked.
Pan, who in 2011 became the youngest-ever member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is central to this effort.
In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Pan talked about the importance of international collaboration, but he also made clear that China sees a unique window for it to shape the next meta-shift in the technology landscape. “We were only the follower and the learner at the birth of modern information science,” he said. “Now we have a chance … to be a leader.”
Pan’s ambitions include a plan to create a globe-spanning constellation of satellites that constitute a super-secure quantum internet. Also on his checklist: helping China catch up with — and perhaps overtake — the US in building powerful quantum computers. The fundamental units of computation in these machines are qubits, which — unlike bits — can occupy a quantum state of 1 and 0 simultaneously. By linking qubits through an almost mystical phenomenon known as entanglement, quantum computers can generate exponential increases in processing power.